A chef conducts a demonstration on the show floor at the Crosset Co.'s annual produce and floral conference. ( Ashley Nickle )

Cincinnati — The Crosset Co. hosted nearly 500 people at its annual produce and floral conference Aug. 28, the highest attendance in the decades-long history of the event.

“We definitely increased not only the vendor side of things in terms of head count there, but our customer base as well — almost by 25%,” said Stephanie Smith, marketing manager for Independence, Ky.-based Crosset Co., which is part of the Castellini Group of Companies. “The other factor in all of that was not only just increasing head count but making sure we had more of the decision makers here so that it was a very mutual exchange between the vendor community and the customers.”

Crosset Co., which has been holding its annual conference for at least 25 years, made some changes to the format and feel of the event. The organization opted for a new approach to the show floor and a different schedule for its education sessions.

“We got rid of all the curtains between the booths, the big backdrops, we have an open, airy room, and we’ve eliminated that barrier of the salesperson on one side of the table and the customer on the other,” said Greg Kurkjian, vice president and general manager of Crosset Co. “The feedback I got today was it really inspired a lot of open and candid conversation. It kind of went with the room — it was open and airy, it was walk around versus here’s the path you follow. It was more organic, which is one of Crosset’s strengths.”

In previous years, Crosset Co. had education sessions in the morning and the expo floor opened afterward. This year, the education sessions took place throughout the day.

Jim Bonaminio, founder of the famous Jungle Jim’s International Markets, kicked off the education program by sharing stories of his early days buying from (and pulling pranks on) various produce wholesalers. He also spoke about the importance of constantly making changes to stores and their assortment.

“We’re always doing something. We’re constantly doing something, constantly. You have to,” Bonaminio said. “You have to reinvent yourself.”

He also noted that Jungle Jim’s plans to go its own way to some extent when it comes to direction for the future; while e-commerce is a focus for many retailers given the increasing demand for convenience, Jungle Jim’s will focus on providing entertainment, which in the future will include an event space and a monorail.

The second session featured four produce retail executives: Greg Corrigan, who until recently was the senior director of produce and floral for West Sacramento, Calif.-based Raley’s; Caitlin Tierney, senior director of produce for Commerce, Calif.-based 99 Cents Only Stores; Drew Sullivan, senior category manager for produce for Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Market; and Mimmo Franzone, director of produce and floral for Vaughan, Ontario-based Longo Bros. Fruit Markets.

The retailers discussed merchandising and pricing strategies for organic produce and also talked about how they deal with shrink. They also gave perspective on the state of packaging and the outlook for more sustainable alternatives.

“There’s a few folks that we’ve been talking to that are working furiously on getting something that’s ready for shelf that is going to hold up and do the right thing for the product and then also be compostable in a reasonable fashion at the back end of the transaction,” Sullivan said. “There’s not a lot of options that are ready to go right now, but there’s a lot of folks that are really close, and it’s a race to get that one across the finish line and ready for retail.”

The event wrapped up with an address from Bonnie Curtis, chief human resources officer for Castellini, about how to retain millennial and Gen Z employees. She outlined findings from her own research and also led a conversation with two borderline Gen Z-millennials about what they look for in jobs and what their expectations are for their jobs.

Both of the high-energy panelists expressed an interest in continuing to learn in their jobs and having opportunities to contribute in different ways to their companies.

Another part of the event, which took place the day before the conference, was a retail share group. This year was the first time that has been part of the equation, Kurkjian said. The retail share group was designed to give independent retailers information useful for their businesses and to get feedback from them on the conference.

The education segment focused on how independents can partake in some of the digital opportunities that exist today.

“It was really about online ordering and delivery of product, and whether the independent retailers needed to do that, and I think the general consensus was it’s hard, it’s expensive for the independent retailer because they don’t have as broad of an organization like a national retailer to spread that cost across, but there are ways to do it cost-effectively, and if you are looking at the trends you’d be foolish not to dip your toe in that water,” Kurkjian said.

The education included a presentation from Nielsen and information about platforms that allow independent retailers to get involved in online grocery.